Updated: Sep 7, 2019
'I can’t believe what happening in Italy!' my friend says as an introduction to our coffee meeting. 'This is just so depressing!'
I raised my head from my book, 'Ritual Theory and Practice.' Good morning you', I said, with a smile, 'you are cheerful today!'
My friend sat, visibly upset. 'Have you seen the new government, populist and Eurosceptic?! I mean I thought Austria was bad, but I never imagined it would actually happen!'
I nodded to agree to his sentiment, while he sipped on his coffee.
'I am scared for the European project, genuinely scared for its future... of the damage they could do to it'
'Don't be so dramatic!' I said repressing a laugh. 'What happening is understandable, people are just reacting to their perceived failure of the European project to deliver on its own promises!'
'Yeah, I understand that! But does it necessarily mean that you should reject the EU and its values altogether, no? I mean you can lose faith in the national state but you will never question its existence.'
'Look at the Brexit! 'He said taking a bite of his muffin. 'People blamed the EU for the consequences of what were essentially national policies while talking about taking back control at the national level. Ridiculous and ironic, no?'
'Yes, indeed. European identity is in fact weaker than national ones. Paradoxically, faith in EU institutions is stronger than in national ones in general.'
'Why is that do you think?' He said inquisitive.
Sensing my excitement at his question, my friend replied rolling his eyes. 'Oh god! Here we go again! I guess you are going to make a comparison with your bloody Romans!'
I laughed. 'I wouldn't be a Modern Romanist if I didn't' I replied wicking at him.
'Fair enough!' He admitted, resigned.
'To answer your question, simply put, the EU was never conceived as a cultural project per say from the beginning. It was mostly thought as an economic project, the single market, and as a political project, the European Parliament and other institutions, and now, as a social project, the charter of fundamental right. Yet, few realised that to be able to achieve those three projects, a fourth essential element was needed, culture. By culture I mean, a shared history, share cultural reference point, like philosophers or books etc.. and shared ritual, like Christmas for instance.'
'Ok so you basically saying that EU needed to be a cultural project – well, it is now with the Erasmus program, those European culture days, and the house of European history.’
‘Yeah, but it is too little, I guess, too late!’
‘Fair enough, so what do you propose?’
‘Well I guess I will disappoint you, but I have nothing really concrete!’
‘Great!’ He said ironically, a bit annoyed.
‘I can propose some axes of reflection!’ I said smiling. ‘Theory is always a good start!’
‘OK, hit me up! Let’s see how good those theories of you hold up’ He replied a bit defiant.
'Well, the Romans had a ritual named the lustrum – it is hard to translate - a fascinating ritual' He was rolling his eyes even more.
'Go to your point, please!'
'Fine, the lustrum was we think the final part of the census. Sources are far and few and very unclear. Basically during the ceremony, the whole Roman people was assembled by social class, which at the time defined your political rights, was marked off as unique by the circling of cows around them -
'Cows? I rather not asked!' He interrupted.
'The lustrum was important because it would seem that legally the new social and political order could not be enforce for election or taxes purpose if the lustrum did not happen. The ceremony was therefore a sort of socio-economico-politico nexus which was at the foundation of Roman identity. In sort, we are Romans because we work together for the victory and prosperity of Rome, the common good.'
' O.K. Great but I failed to understand how that helps to strengthen E.U. identity? Are you suggesting that we are having a lustrum of our own, bring everyone together and pray to some God for peace and prosperity?'
I laughed heartedly. 'No that is not what I am suggesting entirely. Rituals, I think are one of the keys to strengthen EU identity.'
'What are the other keys?'
I smiled. 'Well, let go back to the lustrum and to the cows, would you? In ritual theory, the circling of the cows around the Romans create two different spaces, the insider space where the Roman stands, and the outsider space, the rest of the world. That physical separation acts as a creator of identity. I am Roman because I am in the insider space.
Let's add another dimension! The whole ceremony was taking place into a special space, a temple, a space marked off for communication with the gods. The need of space of discussion with the gods impose on the ritual participant that the god are somewhere where they are not, in the sky while they are on earth.
All those spaces and physical demarcation create in the mind of the ritual participant, a world view, that is a narrative of how the world is ordered and what is their place in that order. A bit like if you are British you learn to queue and you would feel upsetting if someone jump the queue. '
' So you are staying that narrative is the second key?'
'Yes and beyond narrative! An imaginary is needed. All of what I am saying is not new. In setting up nation, the same process was used. Books were powerful tools to create national identities, as well as ritual like the commemoration of an ‘unknown soldier' which would represent the nation as whole. '
‘OK, so narrative is the second key to the creation of a cultural project! Is that what you are saying?’
‘Yes exactly and rituals and narrative goes hand in hand. While ritual physical bind people together, narrative provide the justification for it but beyond that help create the mind-set that support the whole culture!’
‘Ok, so practically, how would you say that would work?’ He said after a last bit of his muffin.
‘Well, I am not going to reinvent the wheel here! An example of a simple ritual could be a European Holiday. Just imagine a second that everyone people in twenty-eight countries would not be working on the same day. How powerful of a symbol is that?
‘Pretty powerful, I guess it would make people think of other people as European because they also stop working on that day!’
‘Yeah, that is idea! Well such a potential holiday already exists. Every year Europe Day on May 9th celebrate the anniversary of the ‘Schuman declaration’, a speech given in Paris in 1950 by Robert Schuman, the then French foreign minister, in which he presented his idea for a new form of political cooperation in Europe to bring peace to the continent. Such a day should be celebrated as a holiday throughout Europe as a reminder of why Europe is still at peace now.’
‘OK, fair I see what you mean!’
‘As for the narrative part, well, the commission has developed a program named New Narrative for Europe that aims to articulate a European cultural project for young people. Part of the project has been implement but to be honest there seem to be no political will for the project to be expended further. But, I personally think we should be bolder and maybe teach European History as part of the normal curricula in all school’
‘What do you mean by European History?’
‘I mean a history where Europe is seen in its entirety not just from the point of view of a nation! For instance, you could look at the baroque movement as a western European movement and then wonder why Eastern Europe did not pick it up. Or else you could also look at European wars of the 17th century and its alliances from a regional point of view – East against West, North against South, etc… This would help frame national history within a wider European context but also help create new divisions within the European context outside the national divisions.
‘hmm.. I see what you mean, but I doubt that national governments would go for that!’
‘You are right!’ I conceded laughingly. ‘Never said that my solution would be practical nor pleased everyone! It is just a thought!’
‘It is just a cow!’ He concluded jokingly
I laughed. ‘Yeah it is just a big fat crazy cow!’